What do you say when I child asks if there's an afterlife?
Saying 'I don't know for sure' is one option
The subject can help us face our fears and strengthen our faith
Once, when my then elementary-school-age daughter and I were driving in the car, she asked me, "Dad, what happens to us after we die?"
Needless to say I was taken aback by the question. Even with my clergy experience, I was not sure what to say to her. It wasn't because I did not know what Judaism teaches. Nor was I afraid to discuss the issue since I had done so many times before in my rabbinate.
But it was my daughter now and I knew that what I said could impact her in a significant way.
Driving the car is not a good time to answer such a serious question from a child. But don't parents have to be ready to give some sort of a preliminary answer before saying, "We'll discuss it when we get home?"
I had the chance to revisit the question last week. A group of parents in my temple's religious school were just as interested in the answer to that question for their children as I was with my daughter.
I told her that we believe that the soul is immortal but I could not explain really what that meant. I explained that I hoped our souls would live forever but I could not be sure of it because, at least in Judaism, I could not prove that people live on after they die and that it was more or less God's business.
Religions have different ideas about the question of life after death. They range from nothing happens after death to a very concrete theological paradigm of the process in the afterlife. Medical experts also have written on and explored the scientific possibility that there is a hereafter. Even the famous therapist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book about the possibility of a continued existence after death.
Yet, I realized that even as I tried to explain to my daughter that I hoped for a life after death, I could not be absolute in my conviction to give her the answer she may have wanted. Was I all those wrong years ago for projecting this subject in a gray zone rather than giving her the clarity she sought from me?
There are so many stories from people who claim to have gotten a glimpse of the world to come.
My mother told me many times about how she almost died once while recuperating from surgery. While her heart stopped beating, she clearly remembered a vision or a dream that found her walking inside a tunnel and seeing her deceased mother and sister. One said to come forward further into the tunnel and the other motioned her to go back. Was this experience about her actually entering the world to come or not? Who knows what experiences emanate from the brain and the unconscious mind that stores memories of the past versus those that truly transcend the realm of living in the here and now?
It is OK not to be clear with our children about the existence of the hereafter.
Sometimes kids have to learn that not all aspects of life have matter of fact explanations. Kids have to learn sometimes how to live with some degree of ambiguity as do I about such questions about life and death.
I tried to tell her that in Judaism we do believe in a hereafter. Yet our tradition emphasizes that the real issue is how we live our lives. That is what God wants most of all from us -- to live a life of holiness by following God's teachings.
What happens afterwards is a mystery. Whether we are kids or adults, the subject of the hereafter makes us face fears and garner faith. The rational part of ourselves -- along with the spiritual side -- live together in this realm of unknown mysteries of being mortal.
Some religions do provide specifics and others have theologies that provide definitive beliefs in the hereafter.
Judaism does believe in the hereafter but it does not provide the one kind of definitive description of what happens after death. In fact Judaism discusses many different kinds of ideas about what can happen to a soul after death.
When younger kids ask this question, classic theological statements aren't necessarily the way to go when talking to children. Being honest with our children is important and if it is true, say, "I don't really know for sure." That is not a bad answer.
I remember telling her that it was fine to believe in a hereafter for us all even though I couldn't explain the process of how souls live on.
Religion can give us answers as well as raise more questions on this subject ,but, it is OK if our children live with questions that aren't clear.
It is all part of being human and searching ourselves through our own life experiences for the answers that we can live with and affirm as we grow older.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.